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Top ten film scores of 2016

Stephan James in 'Race'Focus Features

December 30, 2016

This year was really a high-water mark in cinematic composition. With television continuing to compete for movie audiences, there were many films released this year that effectively challenged the way cinema can distinguish its stories from the small-screen landscape. That innovation extends to film music. This is by no means a complete list of the stellar work film composers did this year, but these are ten particularly outstanding scores.

Race, Rachel Portman

Rachel Portman has such skill and grace that she is often overlooked in these types of lists. Every stroke of her score to Race is so strong and well-arranged that you almost don't hear it because it doesn't try to grandstand. It's not trying to stand out, but just wants to do its job and go home. The classic sound she summons serves the World War II setting well, but without being nostalgic about the moment or treating everything with too much reverence. Rather, the music is very accessible and highlights the story's continuing reverence.

Elle, Anne Dudley

Paul Verhoeven's latest film has earned extensive praise from critics and audiences alike. With Anne Dudley composing the score, we get some incredible string arrangements that subtly bring in a more classical cinema sound with Hitchcockian thriller components. Dudley's music subtly twists into the psyche of the main character and provides a way in to the complicated life she comes to live.

The Childhood of a Leader, Scott Walker

As chronicled in the documentary 30th Century Man, Scott Walker has gone from pop idol to avant-garde experimentalist in an attempt to find something pure and new in the music he writes. While The Childhood of a Leader didn't make much of a splash with critics, Walker's score is a serious achievement. Quite abrasive and often scary, it's also delicate and beautiful.

Embrace of the Serpent, Nascuy Linares

There is a unique combination of classical instrumentation and found-sound audio in the score for Embrace of the Serpent, much like the score for Martin Scorsese's film Silence: it's one step removed from everything we expect in a film score, all the better for what it doesn't try to do.

Jackie, Mica Levi

There is no composer like Mica Levi working today. Her attachment to this story of Jacqueline Kennedy was a signal to audiences that this tale would be nothing traditional. Her score is one of the finest achievements of this century, and is a testament to how music can help shift the perspective on a story that has been told many times through different lenses. Predominantly built on woodwinds and strings, Levi's score changes our understanding as to how biopics can explore great lives.

A Hologram for the King, Johnny Klimek and Tom Tykwer

Since their early days of Run Lola Run, Tom Tykwer and Johnny Klimek have used their particular understanding of cinema and music to craft scores no one else would do. A Hologram for the King has been seen by far too few people, and the score is stunning. Tykwer and Klimek capture the musical characteristics of the film's setting while also speaking to the increasing influence of the outside world. It's a perfect example of how artists coming from electronica can move into a more classically oriented sphere and upend our expectations of what a score can and should do.

Arrival, Jóhann Jóhannsson

Over his last three films with Denis Villeneuve, Jóhann Jóhannsson has demonstrated what a truly fearless composer can accomplish when empowered to do so by a collaborative director who trusts his efforts. Though it's disqualified from Oscar consideration, Arrival may in fact be their greatest accomplishment. Beginning at script phase, Jóhannsson was able to send ideas in-development that made their way into production efforts and eventual editing processes. The result is a truly cohesive score that's wrapped closely into the story.

Jane Got a Gun, Lisa Gerrard, Marcello De Francisci

This film came and went without much fanfare (although we did our share), and that's a shame because the score by Gerrard and De Francisci is a genuine masterpiece. You feel this story in every breath of strings and every beat of percussion; it's a testament to delicacy and rich dynamics, through very specific arrangements that provide space for a story to emerge rather than driving every moment.

American Pastoral, Alexandre Desplat

There are times when Alexandre Desplat does something so good, it seems almost unfair to the playing field and reminds you why he is one of the world's greatest living composers. While he may have dropped from this year's Star Wars film, American Pastoral came out amidst 11 other significant credits, according to IMDB, and is truly awe-inspiring. Aspects of this score reach back to one of his greatest achievements — Birth — and make clear that Desplat is a great composer, full stop.

High Rise, Clint Mansell

High Rise is one of the weirdest, most invigorating films of the year. Watching is to be in awe that it exists at all without becoming a caricature of itself. Clint Mansell's score helps to keep the momentum high, with each cue helping to build a sense of composure that gradually erodes. The film's great success is to approach its narrative without irony or a wink, and Mansell takes the same approach to the score. Without his compositions, High Rise would be a very different kind of movie — and, most likely, much less successful.

Garrett Tiedemann is a writer, filmmaker, and composer who owns the multimedia lab CyNar Pictures and its record label American Residue Records.